Memoir Therapy: 977 Days with Somali Pirates

German/American journalist and writer Michael Scott Moore had authored a novel and a history of surfing, Sweetness and Blood, when he received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to carry out research for a book on Somali piracy in late 2011.

Somali Pirates use bizarrely wrecked boats

This is the kind of thing even a truly daft anthropologist wouldn’t try, but he seems to have had an even greater degree of belief in his own invulnerability.

Since Somali pirates are famous for capturing Westerners and holding them for ransom it is hardly surprising that it happened to him. He got there around November and was abducted in January 2012. The pirates posted video clips which you can still find on Youtube. He was kept in isolation, virtually blind without his contact-lenses, half-starved and increasingly desperate.

The pirates said if the ransom wasn’t paid he would be sold to Al-Shabab. Nobody could come up with the $20 million they wanted, not even his mother,  his only real advocate and supporter. They settled in the end for $1.6 million and to his own amazement he was released.

Not surprisingly he wrote a memoir about his experience. The English version, The Desert and the Sea, published in July 2018, became a Nielsen best-seller.

It has just been published in German as  Wir Werden Dich Toten: 977 Tage in der Hand von Piraten (“We Will Kill You: 977 Days Held by Pirates”). Scott Moore lives in Berlin and holds dual US/German citizenship. I caught his interview on Deutsche Welle  in February 2019 where he appears incredibly normal and unaffected – cool, calm, handsome, unlined, slightly grey, smiling.

Scott Moore interview

In the first months he believed that the ransom would be paid. As time passed he realized this was not going to happen. He was deeply scarred by the ordeal, which dragged on and on, as he was held sometimes on land and sometimes at sea on a beaten-up tuna boat along with other unfortunate captives mostly impoverished fishermen.

I liked his views on hope. We are always being told to stay hopeful, that hope is a positive and beneficial state of mind. Scott Moore concluded otherwise.  As things unfolded his early optimism was destructive, making everything later more terrible.

Writing his book made him feel much much better. He was able to stand back and understand himself as an object. One might say he was able to observe himself as a participant.  He didn’t experience Stockholm Syndrome, where captives come to identify with their captors. Nevertheless he had to forgive them which is another thing we are always being told to do to have a happier life. He finished up running a yoga class for selected pirates and yes, he’s originally from California.

Captivity memoirs can have a strange effect. We are invited to identify with the captive, to share an unbearable experience where everything a person has known and been suddenly is taken away and turned upside down, where their comfortable former existence is overthrown. But you have to ask why the writer or journalist or researcher deliberately goes into such danger. Is it his/her own deluded sense of self? It’s not quite the same as someone kidnapped and imprisoned for political reasons, say, or as part of some psychopath’s personal fantasy.

But in another way, everybody’s life can at times feel like sudden (or slowly developing) captivity.  How much memoir-writing is really therapy? All of it? The more I have been reading, thinking about and writing memoirs, the more the link between writing and trauma has come into focus. Maybe if writing is an attempt at trauma recovery it explains why it’s so damned difficult.

Mostly older people write memoirs. Apart from politicians and a few captains of industry there aren’t that many of them, and I am beginning to see why. If life itself is a traumatic experience, beginning full of hope and happy expectation but declining into failure and disappointment as the end looms, writing about it may only make you feel even more sorry for yourself.  No wonder young people prefer fantasy and adventure.

On the other hand, I recall reading Bert Facey’s recollection, A Fortunate Life, published in 1981 when he was 86. It has been a best-seller in Australian writing, with almost a million copies sold. His early life was traumatic beyond any contemporary imagining, but he came out of it with nothing but gratitude and peace and wrote a wonderful book. A great role model, almost completely forgotten today. That’s a memoir to remember!

The River of Regret with Ernest Tubb

Ernest Tubb sang “River of Regret” in 1959.

For reasons only a psychoanalyst could clearly state, I don’t seem able to get this book finished. I have promised to send it out to the family members who are mentioned in it for their comments and permission to use their real names. I have asked the designer to stand by to do the covers. I have promised myself it is #1 on the priorities list. But no matter what I do I just can’t get it to a point where I can send it out.

The biggest issue has been endlessly rewriting the first chapter. I realise this is because I don’t really know what I want to project in this so-important introductory bit. I have been struggling between two positions: a kind of grovelling excuse-seeking for having been such a dreadful mother and partner and sister and daughter (and probably everything else) all my life and not having realised it, and the desire to say look here, you guys, I was doing my best! I came from another era! I had a miserable confused childhood just like everybody else who was born close to World War 2! And I think I worked incredibly hard and tried everything to keep the show on the road. If it didn’t turn out so well for you all, I am sorry, but I can’t go to my afterlife taking all the blame! I couldn’t be a perfect person. What a surprise! But I guess I am still regretting that.

If my emotions throughout 2018 seemed unstable, the beginning of 2019 has been even worse. Maybe writing a memoir was not the best idea, under the circumstances. A part of me wants to just forget about it right now, today, put the project aside and go back to painting my landscapes and writing about art. Of course none of it makes the slightest bit of difference and it is dawning on me that nobody, I mean nobody, cares in the least what I write or don’t write. It is, to follow my perpetual aqua-marine metaphorical inclination, all just water under the bridge. Or to quote my recent favourite ballad:

And instead of being someone with the world to win
I’m just driftwood on the river of regret.

This is from a song sung by Ernest Tubb in 1959. The original version is on Youtube here – I think I worked out how to embed a song in a post – always something new to learn!

As this song seems so completely apposite to my memoir I set about finding out how to get permission to use these two lines as opening quote in Regret Horizon. What a fascinating business this copyright stuff is. I will write a post about it when I have an outcome.

Meanwhile I’ll just keep on drifting with Ernest Tubb and try to take the deeper philosophical meanings on board.

Regret Horizon: the Memoir

So my memoir of the year my mother and my ex-husband died is almost finished. Procrastinating about sending it out to the family and trying to do the final edits. Every time I open the file I find myself making changes, not just a few, but a lot. I still don’t feel clear about it. And the question of the title has been holding things up. From the start, the working title was A Dying Year. Feedback? Oh, that sounds so sad/distressing/upsetting. And who is dying? Is it you? Is this yet another PityParty by someone on the way out? No, no, not that! Well, what then?

So it got a new title, and a new slant, because I realised by the time I had finished the penultimate draft that my main feeling about everything was my awfulness, and how much I still don’t understand, and how much I feel regret for what I had done and not done in those last few months.

Somehow water, rivers and seas, threaded through everything I felt throughout the process of writing this book. So when I found Jordan Cantelo’s wonderful photograph, “Ocean Horizon”, it spoke to me profoundly. Jordan gave me permission to use it for the cover, and asked for no payment, which was truly generous of him. I love his work. I will write something more about it later.

Draft cover: Regret Horizon.

Memoir: to publish or perish?

I am very close now to getting the memoir finished. Here’s the draft cover. There are a few different variants. Keith my designer will finalise it. I am so grateful to talented Western Australian photographer Jordan Cantelo for his generous permission to use his photograph Ocean Horizon for the cover image. Visit his site to see more of his outstanding work at http://jordancantelo.com/

The title has changed to Regret Horizon and there are several reasons for that. I sent a semi-final version to one of the main characters in the book and she read it twice in a few days and came back with a lot of changes. She said I’d got quite a few things “wrong”. Some were factual things, some were more interpretations and opinions. But it threw me. How far do I have to go to include the views of the people I am writing about? They are all real people with their own points of view and their own desires and hopes in terms of how they might appear in someone’s book, especially when it’s their own mother/grandmother/partner/ex-partner’s wife/sister and so on. I’m so close to publishing this book, but equally close to abandoning the project altogether. I’m going to wait until I get some other comments and feedback, meanwhile I’m in Procrastination City.

New Year’s Resolution: open an Instagram account. At least I’d feel I was doing something. Got some great photos since New Year’s Day so I’ll be seeing you or rather you won’t be seeing me but you’ll be seeing what I see. Which, in a way, is what a Memoir really is all about.

The Memoir, the Relatives: should you Botox your book?

So here it is, two days to Christmas, and the Memoir project remains incomplete. But an end is in sight.

All the issues raised in The Write Nook post on “Writing Your Own Story” are so true. Thanks so much for that.

https://writenook.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/writing-your-own-story/

So Volume 1, Regret Horizons, is almost ready. A cover design is underway with final elements to be provided by Keith. The text is written. After going through the issues haunting Knausgaard (thanks, Uncle Gunnar, for the vital prompt about defamation, invasion of privacy, legal questions) all the most contentious parts have been pared down to the very barest minimum, with only tiny hints instead of full-bodied assertion. Wimpy I know. “Tell your own truth” says my counsellor and I know where he’s coming from and I want to, but I can’t, at least not in this book.

What will happen to my book if I Botox it?

Thought I had covered all bases although there were still a few itchy spots remaining. But I need them in the story for it to make sense for me. I can’t eliminate everything, like some kind of textual Botox. Now it’s time to give it to the rellos to make sure they agree to having their names used, or to indicate otherwise.  Only tried it with one so far and pages of comment about “what really happened” have come back. Needless to say it’s not my version. Now I have to decide how to handle this.

The others will probably have their own comments to throw into the mix. One at least is likely to be even more what – concerned? Outraged? What to do? I understand exactly how Knausgaard felt when he tried to reconcile his recollections of cleaning up his father’s trashed house full of filth and empty bottles with Uncle Gunnar’s totally different version. I’ll probably have to do what he did, and write about that too. Oh god, so the book isn’t finished after all!

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. ~William Faulkner

Writing and Defamation

defamation suitsI haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been engaged in a horrible torture which I hadn’t at all expected. No, it’s not another medical procedure, it’s a legal issue, and it’s resulted in weeks of inability to move forward, more drastic editing, and the emergence of a totally new and unexpected project which I can say nothing at all about here, now or ever, well, for the forseeable future anyway.

I have to thank Karl Ove Knausgaard once again.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard 2011

I’ve said before how important his work has been to my thinking about my memoirs, but lo and behold, his amazing final book, appropriately titled The End, appeared at the exact moment that I finished the first round of edits of my first memoirs book. I thought I was long-winded, but this book is 1100 pages or so. I’ve only managed to read 250 so far and I am desperate to get on with it but because it’s only in print (no e-book format) and because it weighs so much I can’t read it in bed at night which is when I do most of my reading, so I have to read it sitting up in a well-lit room, a few pages at a time. It also has no chapters, breaks or internal subdivisions so if you lose your place it’s damned hard to find it again.

It was published in Norway/Europe in 2011/2012 but English speaking readers had to wait until now – SEVEN YEARS LATER – to read it.

This makes the whole experience very bizarre because he is writing in the present of what is now a long-ago life. A little research reveals that after The End was published he broke up with his wife Linda who has been or still is suffering from a mental illness, he sees his four children in Sweden for a week at a time and lives mainly in London with a new wife, where he is lionized and presumably now very wealthy. All of this is not just aimless gossip, it goes to the heart of what he reveals in Book Six about his entire writing project and where it leads him, how it makes him reconsider who he actually is and what it means to be a writer, and even though he doesn’t know that this will be the outcome while he is writing the words you are reading.

There is so much to say about the Knausgaard effect, about truth and recollection and representation and writing and publishing in the twenty-first century but the thing I have to thank him for is making me truly aware of what can happen when you write about living people using their real names. As is famously known, his Uncle Gunnar, who he thought loved and supported him, went ballistic when an early book in the series appeared. Uncle Gunnar threatened to take him, his publishers and his mother as well to court. It is still not clear to me whether the court case actually took place or only existed in his own imagination, or whether he responded by radically changing his text to meet Uncle Gunnar’s objections. In any case, it was a traumatic irruption of another person’s truth into his creative project which he continues to call a “novel” even though he never claims the people he writes about are fictional and there are no disclaimers at the front of his books.

I have spent weeks now looking into the legal situation of writers of memoirs. The outcome is very sobering. Although laws are different in different countries, there are many commonalities. People who are written about by name in a memoir can object to the publication of the work on various grounds, including the invasion of privacy. “Truth” is not necessarily a defence. Writers are told they should send pre-publication copies to everyone who appears significantly in the book and ask them to indicate in writing that they agree to appear in it. If they ask to be left out altogether, or have their names and identities changed, the author apparently needs to go along with that or face potential consequences. I have been looking at some  recent cases to see how the law has been applied. I understand now why so many apparently autobiographical writings are labeled “fiction” and have vigorous disclaimers at the front.

One of my motivating factors in writing my memoirs has always been to be as much aligned with “the Truth” as possible. Of course I know everyone’s truth is different, but it has seemed to me that writers have not just the right but the duty to avoid the constant hiding-away and dissimulation and self-indulgence which accompanies so much personal narrative.  I am amazed to discover that it’s more or less a legal requirement and my mother was right to say “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all”. Who knew?

Then I found out that defamation suits are being brought against writers of  fiction. Dan Brown is famous for his world-wide best-seller The Da Vinci Code. In his latest book, Origin, he suggests that an Irish cult-monitoring group took money to fight a sect of the Catholic Church. His publisher is being sued. It’s a fascinating case, and also highlights that the mere fact of publication can result in a court case, even if the book was written somewhere else altogether by someone of another citizenship.

Dan Brown Defamation

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/anti-cult-group-sues-over-claims-in-da-vinci-code-author-s-book-08c3t9pnn

So what are you supposed to do? I guess the best thing is to write about life forms on interplanetary galaxies with no resemblance to humans. But I suppose your great-aunt could still take offence and claim that pus-dripping hydra-headed monster you wrote about was “really” her. As if copyright isn’t enough of a nightmare!

Hydra-mythical-creatures-28582631-1134-709

“I Love Dick”: from obscure auto-fiction to (temporary) TV hit.

Last post I was carrying on (at too much length as usual) about auto-fiction and Christ Kraus’s books (among others). I’m still wandering around in that terrain, definitely feeling less lost. I mean, I’m getting it. And want to say a few things about Kraus’s bio of Kathy Acker as well as a strange new publication from Semiotext(e), a collection of email correspondence between Kathy and former socio-cultural Wunderkind McKenzie Wark, who I knew and liked when we worked together in the same department back in ancient times.

EmpireoftheSenselessPK

One of Kathy Acker’s hardly remembered books

 

 

Ken-Wark-

Young Ken Wark

But not right now. This is to issue a correction, or an expansion rather, about the Chris Kraus effect. A body of seemingly random writing by faintly famous people and people who know other faintly famous people has suddenly emerged into the literary firmament after years of obscurity. It is a bit like suddenly discovering the Bloomsbury circle, decades later, featured in comic books, sorry, graphic novels.

room of one's own

Not that I really think the Semiotext(ers) are comparable to Virginia Woolfe’s circle, but maybe that’s not so far-fetched. My question was: why these books? Why now? Where did this new prominence come from?

I said:  I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know.

Well how dumb was I! Obviously I hadn’t done my homework. My apologies. IT IS A SERIES! Not a Netflix one, but made for Amazon Video and you can stream it right now on Prime if you sign up. Why are we toiling away writing books when we could be writing directly for television? Or does television need our books? If so, why?

ILVD_S1-Bacon_Hahn_Dunne-LM_2773.tif

Actors playing Chris Kraus, (Kathryn Hahn)  Sylvere Lotringer (Griffin Dunne) and Dick (Kevin Bacon)

“I Love Dick” – the book, and the people around the book – have been discovered because of the TV series.  Although Chris Kraus had a role in the production, it was helmed and mostly written by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins. A “sleeper hit” of 2017 it was canceled after one season. Apparently it was too popular with the wrong kind of people, that is to say, not the masses. Jill Soloway is the show-runner, director and sometimes writer on the Amazon series Transparent. transparentIt’s showing on Amazon right now too.  It is about a family where the pater-familias turns himself into a mater. There has been a lot of drama about the show, not only onscreen. Soloway identifies as non-binary and the show has been hailed as a main-stream acknowledgment of the powerful rise of the non-binary in contemporary culture. The star, Jeffrey Tambor, was recently pink-slipped largely because he himself is not a non-binary which makes him inauthentic in the role according to various critics. He has been lashing out about it. It would make a good TV series. But it looks like Amazon wants to get out of its quality niche offerings and go back to the masses. Yawn.

Anyway that’s part of another story. All I wanted to point out is that Chris Kraus’s books have suddenly been re-discovered BECAUSE their sensibility works so well in today’s edgy uncertain social spaces  among the creative classes AND BECAUSE AMAZON  MADE A TV SERIES OUT OF IT. It will be interesting to find out what the effect is on sales of her books, along with Kathy Acker’s and the various other outliers which are popping up. But if none of the streamers want to take up this kind of niche, I guess it won’t be happening again. But it was fun while it lasted.